What to Do When Someone Has an Anxiety or Panic Attack

Having a panic or anxiety attack can be a scary experience.  Although 40 million adults in the United States are affected by anxiety disorders, only 37% of those adults receive treatment, according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The stigma of these experiences make it hard to get help and to know how to help if it’s your loved one.

Tiffany Pottkotter, psychiatric certified nurse practitioner with ProMedica Physicians Behavioral Health, said that things are getting better but a stigma about anxiety disorders still exists. “The numbers are showing more people are actually getting help, so that means we are doing a better job of decreasing the stigma overall, but we definitely still have a long way to go,” she said.

General anxiety disorder is when a person experiences excessive anxiety and can’t control the worrying on most days for at least six months. You may have a hard time sleeping, have headaches, sweating, nausea or have difficulty breathing.

Pottkotter’s own experience with anxiety attacks in college led her to study in the field of psychiatry. She saw a counselor and began exploring her thought process. Now, she works with patients to help those who are dealing with similar situations.

Anxiety attacks can begin out of nowhere and can feel like a heart attack. Your heart seems to pound out of your chest, you feel out of breath and you may feel dizzy or nauseated. “That fight or flight syndrome kicks in so some people get that burst of energy—that jittery nervous energy and they don’t know what to do with it,” explained Pottkotter.

For some, these attacks may come and go, but for those with panic disorder, the unexpected panic attacks happen on a regular basis. Panic disorder is similar to anxiety disorder, causing overwhelming fear when there is no specific cause for fear. Symptoms include fear of losing control, going crazy or dying, sweating, nausea and a pounding heart. The cause of these attacks can range from a number of things, said Pottkotter. Taking a look at family history of anxiety or environmental factors can be a few indicators.

No matter why or how often they happen, Pottkotter said being supportive helps. If a family member, friend or anyone close to you experiences anxiety or panic attacks and you are not sure what to do, Pottkotter recommended being supportive. “A lot of people with anxiety tend to think the worst scenario,” Pottkotter explained. Telling them to “get over it” won’t help.

Pottkotter advised, “Just say, ‘Stay calm; let me help you through this.’ Do deep breathing with them and take them out of the place that is causing anxiety.” You can also walk your loved one through a technique like progressive muscle relaxation. Overall, stay calm. Getting worked up yourself won’t help their anxiety.

The key is to support and guide someone you love through an anxiety and panic attack. The comfort of knowing someone is there to help is what they need.


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